Picture the fair

Photographers bring the Ag Fair to life in a new virtual exhibit.


Adversity can indeed spawn creativity. In this season when so many of our beloved events are not happening, a group of photographers have created a sensual, visual bridge to one very dear to our hearts — the Agricultural Fair.

When this joyous tradition was originally canceled after the pandemic hit, photographer Dena Porter lit upon the idea of bringing it to us through the magic of the internet. The West Tisbury library embraced the concept, and will host the resulting exhibition, “Picturing the Fair” on its website throughout August.

The show is an outgrowth of a project that began two summers ago. Island photographer Vincent Chahley reached out to a number of local photographers to ask them to capture the Ag Fair. The goal was to portray moments at the fair from many different perspectives. He collected the group’s best work and organized an exhibition, which opened to great success at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum last summer.

With the wind at their backs, the group was invited to also photograph last year’s fair, with the hope that they would again get to show the work at a public venue. Little did they know the pandemic would turn the world upside down.

“When the Ag Hall originally announced the cancellation of the Ag Fair, and most public venues would be closed or impacted by social distancing practices, Vincent expressed concern that we could not secure a venue for a traditional exhibit this year,” Porter explained. “As COVID spread around the world, I was watching what galleries and museums were doing to continue exhibiting artists’ work. I realized many art schools, museums, and larger galleries were using software that allowed their patrons to see artists’ work virtually.”

Porter explained her reasoning for reaching out to the West Tisbury library to host the exhibit: “It made sense to me to one, show photos of the fair, this iconic Island event, during the month of August when the fair traditionally runs; two, host the event, albeit virtually, in the same town as the fair; and three, work in partnership with the Ag Hall to launch this exhibition. I truly believed that if we couldn’t have a live show, we could at least present an exhibit of some of our best memories of the fair.”

In this day and age, getting the word out about the show will be primarily virtual as well. The photographers will post the information on their respective websites and social media pages, and the library will also promote the show online. While there won’t be wine and cheese available, unless you serve it up at home, Porter says, “We’re hosting a virtual reception on August 5, where participants can meet the photographers and ask questions.”

The show is a stunner. Porter, along with Chahley, Alison Shaw, L.A. Brown, Max Skjöldebrand, Brooke Bartletta, Claire Ganz, Bob Avakian, Gwen Norton, and Maria Thibodeau give us something for everyone. In color and black and white, we experience the midday hubbub, neon-lit nights, heartwarming animals, the excitement of the events, fun of the midway games, and quiet moments of exhaustion of fairgoers and staff. Each artist brings their particular eye and aesthetic to their pieces.

Ultimately, the show is about community. The transportive images of the fair will unite old-timers, newcomers, year-rounders, seasonal folks, and day visitors, as well as the photographers, with one another and the community they depict. And in a show of support in this time of adversity, the artists will donate a portion of sales of their work to the West Tisbury Library Foundation, which is underwriting the show, and the Ag Hall.

“It’s exciting to think that we will be sharing photos of the Ag Fair that can be seen by anyone who has ever enjoyed it, whether they are able to be here this summer or not,” Porter said. “And the partnership of the West Tisbury library, the Ag Hall, and this group of photographers reaffirms my hope that we can and will get through these difficult times.”

Art has the ability to transport us, and although we won’t physically be wandering the fairgrounds this summer, “Picturing the Fair” will let us enjoy its hustle and bustle and endlessly joyous texture up-close and personal.

“Picturing the Fair,” August 1-30, goes live at WTlibraryVirtualGallery.org. Virtual reception, August 5, 5 to 5:45 pm. Zoom link: us02web.zoom.us/j/85402230857.